By most measures, the first two-plus months of the 2019-2020 Penn State basketball season have been a big success. The team entered January, and the heart of the conference season with just a pair of losses. More importantly, Pat Chambers' squad also entered the new year with several notable wins, and the program's first AP Poll ranking since 1996.
A lot has changed in the last eight days.
Coming off of an emotional, and well played win over Iowa at the Palestra, the Nittany Lions fell to a solid Rutgers team in Piscataway. They returned home on Saturday, and were done in by a freezing cold shooting spell to open the game vs. Wisconsin. Suddenly a team that was riding as high as anyone in the Big Ten has stumbled to two straight losses. It does not get any easier over the next seven days.
Starting tonight, the Lions face Minnesota in Minneapolis, host No. 21 Ohio State, and travel to No. 19 Michigan. With 15 games remaining in the regular season there is plenty of basketball still to be played, but the next week of action could very well define this season.
The last two losses have hardly done in Penn State. At 2-3 in the league, they sit just one game behind Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, and Wisconsin in the standings. Those four teams are at 3-2 in what has become the most competitive, and deepest conference in the country. What raises red flags, however, is how quickly it feels like this could go sideways.
The Lions will almost certainly be underdogs in each of the next three games, and should they drop all three, a 2-6 league mark eliminates quite a bit of margin for error. Rather than fighting for seeding, the Lions would likely need to put together an 8-4 type of run just to get into the NCAA Tournament, something that seemed like a given not all that long ago.
What ought to give fans optimism heading into this stretch is what we have seen from Penn State for much of the year. This is a team that, when it is on, defends incredibly hard, forces turnovers, and scores plenty of points in transition. In this little mini skid, those turnovers have either not manifested themselves, or the Lions have quite simply failed to convert. An offense that was as dynamic as any in recent memory has suddenly struggled to hit shots. Sometimes the game is just that simple.
But with all of the season's momentum seemingly gone over the last two games, Pat Chambers, Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins, and the rest of this team will need to find the recipe they used to get off to an impressive 12-2 start and a top-20 ranking. Do that, and early-January is just a blip on the radar. If not, then suddenly things get really late, really early.